9 Books To Read In February 2024

We did it. We made it through the first month of 2024. Did you run all the miles you wanted to? Refrain from drinking all the alcohol you didn’t? Whatever one’s resolutions, I’ve never heard anyone say their goal was to read less books—so let us help you with that. Here are our favorites from the last few weeks, the stories that made us stay up too late, the nonfiction that’s changing how we interact with the internet, the dog-eared paperbacks we passed off to our friends. Here we are, handing them on to you. —Keziah Weir

‘The Reformatory’ by Tananarive Due (Simon & Schuster, 2023)

It’s an astounding feat for a writer to reach into depths of total darkness and sorrow and craft them into something as vivid, lively, lovely and moving as this novel by Tananarive Due. The author is a friend (and a Vanity Fair contributor) so I picked up The Reformatory prepared to love it. What I was not prepared for was the breathtaking beauty of her words, the poetry of her prose. Early in the book, a character reckons with the harsh realities of danger and injustice by noting that sometimes “God blinks,” which is as good an explanation as any for the commonplace nightmares that history has a habit of repeating.

The Reformatory is a ghost story, set at the intimidating edifice of a “school” for delinquent boys, where many of those detained never live to grow up, let alone get out. Due’s storytelling and craftsmanship make this far more than a genre thriller, although it’s certainly that too, delivering a satisfying and imaginative tale of hair-raising terror. It tells the story of a Florida community in the Jim Crow era of the 1950s, where Black lives end abruptly, and fear enforces so-called law and order. Robert Stephens is a young boy sent to the reformatory who begins to see visions of others like him whose lives ended on its grounds in brutal fashion.

The harsh and painful stories that manifest themselves as ghosts in this book were inspired by real events. Robert Stephens is named after an uncle of Due’s, who died at age 15 in the notorious Dozier School for Boys, where dozens upon dozens of graves were eventually uncovered. How can such inhumanity exist? The only explanation, for those who hope to retain some faith that the universe does indeed bend toward justice, is that God occasionally blinks. The Reformatory does not blink. It stares into its horrors straight on, with a broken heart and tearful eyes, but never looks away. —Anthony Breznican

‘They Called Us Exceptional’ by Prachi Gupta (Crown, 2023)

Written to her mother, Prachi Gupta’s memoir They Called Us Exceptional tackles the myth of the model minority and how it can dictate an individual’s life. From having immigrant parents in a xenophobic country to dealing with the rage of the men in her family, Gupta documents her growth, her loss, and her desire to break the cycle. Her honesty is gutting, and though there are sections that are tough to read, Gupta’s rawness and vulnerability keep the pages turning. —Kathleen Creedon

‘Filterworld’ by Kyle Chayka (Doubleday, 2024)

In Kyle Chayka’s Filterworld—a peek under the hood at the systems of algorithmic recommendations that power what we buy, watch, and listen to—the picture is unsurprisingly bleak. Here is a technology that exerts control while promising frictionless ease, like an obsequious butler who puppeteers the house. As Chayka, a New Yorker writer, puts it: “The algorithm always wins.” (Hence the phenomenon known as algorithmic anxiety, a consequence of navigating this unknowable, ever-shifting terrain.) The book surveys the recent past—media’s ill-advised “pivot to video,” Instagram’s abandoned chronological feed, the TikTok churn—while peppering in perspectives from historical figures (Michel de Montaigne) and contemporary ones (Taylor Lorenz). Filterworld’s chief concern is the flattening of creative output to least-common-denominator fill—a situation “in which we are fed culture like foie-gras ducks, with more regard for volume than quality,” Chayka writes. Still, the algorithm alerted the world last week to John Galliano’s latest Margiela Artisanal spectacle in Paris, proof that audiences are still hungry for the spikily subversive. If algorithmic malaise depletes “our capacity to be moved, or even to be interested and curious,” then his proposed homework is a refreshing one: to leave the sanitized playlists and For You grids behind and trawl through the mud, nose down for what surprises and offends. —Laura Regensdorf

‘Dormant Season’ by Erinn Springer (Charcoal Books, 2023)

Erinn Springer returned to her rural Wisconsin hometown in the late 2010s and began to photograph her community there. The resulting black-and-white images in Dormant Season are cinematic, moody, and literary in their ability to convey the tenor of life in such an agrarian place. A place where sub-zero winters mean perpetually overcast days. A place where the very floor underneath your feet leans, an entire electric stove and kitchen cabinet slanting with it. A place where a deer in a headlight punctuates the darkness, and instead of providing company enforces your solitude. There are children here—not unlike those in Andrea Modica’s Treadwell—captivating for the breadth of emotions on their faces as they hold hunting rifles or swing from the rafters of a barn, light streaming in between rotting boards to create an otherworldly clubhouse. One imagines secret passwords whispered through cupped hands in order to gain entrance. But time slips in and then it passes. The children become the elders and the animals continue their brutal lifecycles. What remains steady is the cycle of the seasons. —Madison Reid

‘Life’ by Keith Richards (Back Bay Books, 2010)

Keith Richards’ autobiography Life was published in 2010, and I first read it ten years ago, but I decided to grab it from the bookshelf for another go this year to be reminded why I love Keef and The Rolling Stones so much. A lot has changed since it was published: the Stones are now down to three members but, last October, they released their first record of original material in 18 years. One thing that hasn’t changed is that they’re gearing up for another tour and, revisiting Life, I’ve realized that Richards’ stories of a singular existence are still as fascinating as ever. You don’t have to be a Stones fan to appreciate the tales of being a musician in an era that won’t and can’t exist ever again, and reading this book is basically getting them from the most qualified narrator, who is remarkably not as unreliable as one would think, given the context of most of these stories. —Fred Sahai

‘Fight Night’ by Miriam Toews (Bloomsbury, 2021)

Narrators are tricky—it’s hard business, telling a story—and certain categories can be a particular gamble: animals, second person, a child. When they work, though, they work really well. Henry Hoke’s Open Throat is a superlative of the first category, Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House of the second and, happily, Fight Night for the third. In it, nine-year-old Swiv is suspended from school for fighting, and spends her days being “homeschooled” by her bawdy, eccentric grandmother, Elvira, while her very pregnant mother, an actress, attends theater rehearsals. The book’s a masterclass in tragicomedy, with Swiv quoting her mom and grandmother like a tiny, hilarious sociologist (of a director, her mother “said he’s banged every young actress in town and super talks down to everyone”), but also, devastatingly, remains terrified that her mother’s going to kill herself, as the suicides of her aunt and grandfather drift murkily below the narrative’s surface. “Joy, said Grandma, is resistance. Oh, I said. To what? Then she was off laughing again and there was nothing anybody could do about it.” —KW

‘Emergency’ by Kathleen Alcott (W.W. Norton, 2023)

There’s a spiny energy to everything Kathleen Alcott writes, from her most recent novel, the Cold War era, space race-circling America Was Hard To Find, to an essay on shopping I had the pleasure of editing back in 2018. If this collection were a bouquet, it might be a cluster of bramble roses arranged in a delicate vase, thorns still on and the water mildewing. A thirty-year-old divorcee becomes entangled with a teen boy. A daughter encounters a sexually explicit photograph of her dead mother at a museum show. A young woman realizes, perhaps too late, the truth of the man she’s fallen in love with. A tech employee helps bury the icky Google results of high-paying clients. It’s cliche to say that one stayed up too late reading a book, but I did with this one—it’s rangy and hypnotic, digging deeply into discomfort, each story a razorblade wrapped in silk. —KW

‘Tomb Sweeping’ by Alexandra Chang (Ecco, 2023)

I’ve been in a short story mood, evidently. This collection, following Alexandra Chang’s resonant debut novel Days of Distraction, dives under the cool veneer of material success; its characters strive for more and shinier things, for the admiration of people they don’t much like. It kicks off with a nightmare: after seven years at a company, a woman is unceremoniously laid off because “they had purchased a piece of software that could perform my job at a thousand times the speed.” She drifts into a housesitting gig for a rich, self-proclaimed artist, and becomes haunted by the beautiful home’s past. Other stories circle a woman throwing a pre-death party for her supposedly ailing husband (though she remains primarily concerned with showing off her orchids), a grocery store employee who feels like everyone is getting him wrong, a pair of friends who enact a proxy battle via their cats’ personalities. The stories are destabilizing. In one that I can’t stop thinking about, a woman’s life plays out in reverse, beginning with her death of a stroke on the sidewalk. It forces careful, concentrated reading—which is how one will want to treat every story in the book. —KW

‘The Book of Ayn’ by Lexi Freiman (Catapult)

I knew The Book of Ayn was a book intended for me the moment its protagonist, Anna, is ejected from a Manhattan gathering for “canceled” journalists because she showed insufficient piety to their pet interests. (Turns out the offensive are, themselves, easily offended!) It only gets funnier when Anna eventually decamps to Los Angeles to write a TV pilot about Ayn Rand and finds herself in a LaCroix-filled, protein powder–dusted AirBnb with obnoxious roommates. The novel is a pitch-perfect satire of media, publishing, Hollywood, and the peculiar and lonely millennial specimens who inhabit their ranks, but as the book a detour into an island cult commune, it’s clear that Freiman’s comedic arrows are aimed much higher than her own generation. —Erin Vanderhoof

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